National:Fukushima sake maker relaunches business after quake disaster

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Chieko Sasaki holds a bottle of the doburoku sake that she has begun producing again for the first time since the Great East Japan Earthquake. (Mainichi)

FUKUSHIMA -- A sake manufacturer from the Fukushima Prefecture village of Iitate, who had given up production last year due to the nuclear disaster, has begun making sake again, albeit this time in the prefecture's capital city of Fukushima where she is still in evacuation.

Back in production and on sale again is 66-year-old Chieko Sasaki's doburoku sake, also known as nigorizake, a type of rice wine that is not filtered after fermentation and therefore remains cloudy. Sasaki had given up on production last year when the entire village was forced to evacuate, but in April received authorization -- required under the Liquor Tax Law -- to produce doburoku in the prefecture's capital where she is currently staying, and began selling her products "Dobuche" and "Hakuro" in May.

Iitate was designated a "special doburoku zone" in 2005, the first municipality in Fukushima to receive such designation. The following year, Sasaki, who farmed and ran a local eatery, obtained a license to produce and sell doburoku. In hopes of making the beverage a local specialty, at the age of 60, she went into debt and the world of doburoku making. Her products went on to become popular as gifts on celebratory occasions, and it was when she was nearly finished paying off her loans that the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami hit, triggering a nuclear disaster at a power plant less than 40 kilometers away.

Sasaki left Iitate, which was given government designation as an evacuation preparatory zone, and moved into a rental apartment for disaster victims in Fukushima city. Her former life that had been filled with farm chores, cooking at her eatery, and making sake was now gone, and Sasaki had nothing to do. News that she would be compensated for the sake-making equipment and the brewery that was left idle in Iitate failed to uplift her. When she finally decided last December that she wanted to make sake again, she felt a heaviness leave her body.

The Liquor Tax Law, however, prohibits the home production of doburoku outside of special doburoku zones. Sasaki consulted with officials from the Iitate and Fukushima municipal governments and the national government about her situation, successfully obtaining a special doburoku zone license in Fukushima city on the condition that she would rent a brewing facility close to her apartment.

Rice harvested in 2010 and stocked by Sasaki for making doburoku had been spared radioactive contamination because she had stored it in a refrigerator made of thick concrete. She took samples of her doburoku to two different testing centers, where their safety was confirmed. Starting next year, however, Sasaki will have to use rice made elsewhere for her sake because high levels of radiation in Iitate have prevented rice farmers from planting rice.

Sasaki is now back to her daily routine of checking up on the brewery morning, day, and night, and taking note of changes in temperature.

"Doburoku is a living creature," Sasaki says. "Its flavor changes when the brewery changes. What I've liked about it from the very beginning is the fact that not even its alcohol percentage is consistent from batch to batch." Ironically, she herself can't hold her liquor, and her face turns red just from spending time inside the brewery.

Sasaki adds that she has a dream, saying, "I want to go back to my hometown after it's been decontaminated, and make doburoku there again."

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